The Wings of a Butterfly Draw A Noblewoman into a Sinister Plague – The Joseon Zombie Annals, Part 1

My interim selection for 2018 is the Korean language webcomic, “The Joseon Zombie Annals” by Gonma, which you can read here:

Joseon Zombie Annals 1

Right now it’s up to chapter 272, and you have to page back all the way to chapter one to start it since it runs backwards.  A little popup box to the right of the screen allows you to navigate back to the first chapter quickly by tapping the “<<” button. I will only be covering a limited number of chapters, giving an introduction to the characters and noting some of the more interesting plot points. Here is a screen shot of the “cover” with the navigation panel where you can see it on the bottom right:

Joseon Zombie Annals 2

The opening shots show a port where a nobleman talks with the slaves unloading cargo from his ship. Suddenly, a slave notices the nobleman’s face is turning pale and asks if he’s alright. He answers that perhaps the food in Japan didn’t agree with him, but shortly thereafter he spits up blood and collapses on the ground in front of the slave. Meanwhile, a strange couple standing on the roof of a nearby house watches the scene with interest. Here is a later screenshot of them, and the man looks like a Japanese samurai.

Joseon Zombie Annals 3

The story is set in Korea in the early part of 15th century, and at the beginning, the people are unaware a plague is spreading from the south.

The next scene shifts to Hanyang (the old name for modern day Seoul) six months later – the calligraphy in the scene blocks is very difficult to read in places, but I could make this one out. A noblewoman named Jin is summoned to the palace. She and her servant girl walk through the village.

At the palace, we see a noblewoman in white paying her respects to the Buddha along with two attendants in one of the pavilions. Jin and her servant are allowed into the palace courtyard, where Jin notices a butterfly out of season since it’s autumn. She follows the butterfly, and it leads her to the hall where the noblewoman is kneeling before the Buddha. The woman, known only as “respected believer,” notes Jin is a woman of noble blood and calls for an audience with the Crown Prince. The woman insists Jin’s appearance there is not a coincidence but is the work of heaven.

Joseon Zombie Annals 4

Jin doesn’t understand why she’s there in spite of the woman’s statement, but when the noblewoman has an audience with the Crown Prince, she tells him about Jin and discusses the plague that is spreading through the land. They also have a rather ominous conversation about how Jin will end up as a sacrifice in the temple in T’amna, while the manga block focuses on a sword that is displayed behind the Crown Prince. I don’t get that part of the conversation, but clearly Jin’s arrival has a lot more significance than Jin herself is aware.

Jin is waiting outside the audience hall when the noblewoman finally requests that she enter alone to talk with the Crown Prince. For his part, the Crown Prince is flustered since Jin is so beautiful. One of his guards, a handsome fighter named Muhyeok, coughs to bring the Crown Prince to attention. She introduces herself as the daughter of a Right Bureau government official, and when he asks her if she is willing to risk the danger of going to T’amna, she agrees to go if it will somehow end the plague. The Crown Prince then reveals that he and Muhyeok will accompany her to T’amna. She’s surprised to hear that, but he observes it’s as dangerous in the palace as it is without.

As they chat, night falls, and Jin’s servant is still outside waiting for her when one of the guards suddenly shows signs of illness. As he transforms into a zombie, the servant girl screams in terror, which brings Jin, the Crown Prince and Muhyeok out to see what’s going on. They witness one of the palace’s female attendants, now a zombie, attack another healthy attendant, and that’s the screenshot I kicked the post off with.  I think that block makes the zombies look more like vampires, but the monsters turn out to be pretty interesting for a number of reasons.

In chapter 2, the attendant then attacks the Crown Prince, but he fights her off. She falls, and they study her symptoms, wondering what this means for the plague. When they run out into the palace yard, they discover everything is in chaos since many more people have become zombies and are attacking. The Crown Prince restrains Muhyeok from fighting them, and they flee the palace on horseback, pulling Jin in a wagon behind them. Meanwhile, the Japanese couple is back on the roof watching the scene with some amusement.

Further down the road well after dark, an arrow hits the Crown Prince’s horse’s leg, and they all stop to tend to the fallen horse but find themselves surrounded by bandits deep in the forest.  They talk with them about a Master Byeongpan while the bandits still look like normal humans. This sequence starts to drop some hints that the men with Jin are actually in disguise. The man dressed as the Crown Prince calls his handsome guard “Cheoha,” a title usually reserved for the prince, and the guard calls the man dressed as the Crown Prince “Muhyeok.” So the characters are actually opposite of whom they appear to be, and this emerges clearly as the crisis gets worse. Jin realizes as much in the last block of the chapter.

The scene continues in chapter 3. Muhyeok expresses some concern that Master Byeongpan will take advantage of the situation and suggests the Crown Prince move on with Jin to reach T’amna. After the bandits’ leader commands them to kill the men and spare Jin, the bandits transform into zombies and attack the Crown Prince’s party, leading to an extended fight. The real Crown Prince flees with Jin, and the caption is an apology to Muhyeok, whom they had to leave behind to fight the crowd of monsters alone.

Joseon Zombie Annals 5

When Jin trips and falls, the Crown Prince can’t help her, but a cleaver flies through the air and takes out the lead zombie before it reaches her. A rogue fighter appears, and she recognizes him as Soonshin, someone she met in the city, though she doesn’t understand why he’s there. His flying blade looks really cool, so here is the manga block:

Joseon Zombie Annals 6

Some of the key fight or zombie scenes are presented sideways in long, dynamic blocks, which is a really interesting method that’s hard to take a screenshot of. Readers should flip through chapters one through nine to see the action for themselves since I can’t do it justice here.

Chapter 4 flashes back to Soonshin’s life in town. He’s a butcher preparing beef cuts across from a tavern, and in traditional Korean society, butchers were considered very low class and unworthy of respect. A nobleman harasses him for being rude as he does his work out in the courtyard.  His boss comes out and tries to calm the nobleman, apologizing to him for Soonshin’s behavior. He explains that many members of his family have been dying due to the plague, and he’s short on meat to sell. However, the nobleman gets even more belligerent.

Jin and her servant arrive in the middle of the nobleman’s tirade and intervene. She and the offended nobleman exchange an introduction, and her revelation of her father’s identity makes him hesitate a moment. When he suddenly runs off, Jin cheerfully talks with Soonshin, making him blush. The head butcher also talks with her about Soonshin, embarrassing him even further. He remains flustered and smitten with her for the rest of the chapter, even after they part ways.

Later, when Soonshin is walking alone through the city, he meets the nobleman again, who demands the meat he’s carrying. The nobleman’s huge younger sister appears, too, and the two of them threaten Soonshin, but the sister starts spitting up blue blood, turns into a zombie and attacks. Soonshin finds himself having to defend the nobleman with his cleaver. Suddenly, he realizes Jin is in danger and abandons the nobleman to find her. He just so happens to see the carriage she’s riding in as it comes out of the palace and follows it.

The flashback ends, and they are back in the forest where Jin is demanding to know what Soonshin is doing there. He blushes and is too flustered to speak to her again; the manga keeps a running interior monologue with Soonshin’s emotions as Jin pays attention to him, which is kind of interesting since it clearly positions him as her love interest over the Crown Prince. As they try to speak, the zombies spring back to life and chase them to a wood and rope bridge swinging over a chasm, flanked by a pair of thin, primitive statues. The statues are jangseung, Korean totem poles, which have a very distinct look that gives the bridge some character here. They flee across it, but Soonshin stops partway to keep the zombies from passing while the Crown Prince and Jin get to the other side.

Chapter 5 shows a stunning fight sequence with Soonshin wielding his cleaver against the zombies. He discovers that even when he beheads them, their heads reconnect quickly, and he has to fight them again. When he sees Jin has made it safely to the other side with the Crown Prince, he makes a run for it, the zombies close on his tail. In desperation since he can’t shake them, he cuts the bridge apart so the zombies can’t reach her, and he is on the verge of falling into the chasm with them as the bridge collapses.

The story cuts back to Muhyeok who is back in the forest fighting the zombies alone. He is also discovering that chopping the zombies apart doesn’t kill them as some blue energy or blood keeps the body together and regenerates it. As he starts to despair, all of the zombies around him dematerialize from their clothing, leaving it to flutter to the ground, as the Japanese samurai and his woman approach. Muhyeok wonders if they have some sort of special weapon that caused the zombies to disappear and realizes they are from Japanese – the word used here is waenara, not the modern ilbon, so let me give a little context for that designation:

This is an old Chinese term for Japan that is not that uncommon in the region’s historical novels and documents.

The Japanese samurai’s face is very scarred, though the girl with him is young and attractive. She is apparently an onmyōdō (yin yang) master, which is possibly why the zombies disappeared. The samurai talks about his resentment of Joseon’s people as he stabs Muhyeok first in the stomach, which is pixelated for some reason, then through the head before the scene cuts back to Jin and the Crown Prince, who are looking into the chasm where Soonshin is hanging on the cliffside by a rope.

In chapter 6, Soonshin crawls up the side of the ravine where Jin and the Crown Prince are watching him. Jin slaps him, angry that he risked his life like that, but he’s in a daze and blushing once again since she touched him with her hand. When she finally coaxes him to talk, he feels he can’t really tell her the reason he showed up is because he was worried about her. Instead, he mentions something about her traveling the wrong way…she admits they are going to T’amna, and Soonshin then eyes the Crown Prince dubiously.

He asks the Prince how old he is as they both get more aggressive toward one another. The Prince answers he is 17. When Soonshin suggests the Prince is too timid, the Prince gets angry enough to admit his true identity as a member of the royal family and pulls his sword on Soonshin. He and Soonshin get into a big fight over class divisions in their society, and they nearly end up coming to blows until Jin angrily intervenes and declares she will travel alone. They make up after her declaration.

We briefly see the samurai and his onmyōdō girlfriend again, then the very last scene in the chapter shows a zombie tied up in someone’s house at night. A man with glasses comes in with an axe and frees the zombie from his bonds, jubilant that he found the creature.

Chapter 7 shifts back to Soonshin, Jin and the Crown Prince, who are hiding out in the dark near a residence. At first they confront a large wild boar, then we see them serving meat from the boar by firelight in the courtyard of the deserted house. After Soonshin serves them a delicious dinner, they relax a bit, and he asks them why they are going to T’amna. The Crown Prince takes out a map to explain his plan, but he and Soonshin get in a fight again, much to Jin’s dismay.

While they are fighting, the man in the glasses with the axe comes out to find out what’s going on. He stomps out the fire, fearing it will attract the zombies, and tells them to come into the underground storehouse with him since it’s dangerous to be out. As Soonshin asks what zombies are, the zombies start to surround the house.  The man in glasses gives the group of heroes small white bottles of liquid to pour over their blades. This time, when Soonshin hits the zombies, their bodies turn to ashes, leaving their clothes to flutter to the ground, empty.

Joseon Zombie Annals 7

But Soonshin gets scratched by one of the zombies before he can stop it, and he wonders if that will turn him into a zombie, too. The fight with the zombies continues in chapter 8, but the Crown Prince and man in the glasses notice Soonshin’s unusual sword technique and wonder about it. The Crown Prince particularly marvels because Soonshin is merely a butcher. By the end of the chapter, Soonshin gets into a brief knife battle with the Crown Prince again, this time claiming he’s just being playful.

As they talk amongst themselves, we see a man hiding in the bushes watching them. The scene changes to show a regal house that the informant goes to with information about this special zombie-killing method. The man who lives in this house looks more like a character out of “The Three Musketeers” than traditional Korea, but he refers to the man with the glasses as the famous Joseon physician Heo Jun. He questions the spy about Heo Jun’s knowledge and if the physician told the others about this method. The spy calls the man of the house “kyojunim,” which refers to someone who is the leader of a religious sect, but there are no hints yet as to who this man is exactly. The sect leader tells one of the palace guards to bring Heo Jun to him the next day.

Meanwhile, Heo Jun takes Soonshin, Jin and the Crown Prince down into the storehouse where he kept the zombie earlier, and they talk about the zombie action they’ve observed. Heo Jun examines Soonshin, too, and determines he has an infection because the color of his eyes has changed. Indeed, looking back over the chapter, his eyes turn from brown to blue then back to brown for some reason, but this infection is somehow supposed to be evidence of an immunity. Heo Jun explains two types of immunity to the Crown Prince.

When the Crown Prince brings up the liquid Heo Jun gave them for their weapons, Heo Jun explains the zombie condition and their craving for human blood. Therefore, he discovered their weakness is garlic. These zombies seem to be a cross between zombies and vampires in actual fact, so the first impression we get with the palace ladies was correct. Heo Jun explains the situation with the outbreak in more detail to the trio. In chapter 9, they emerge from the storehouse to find a contingent of guards from the palace awaiting them….

Part one of a six part series.

About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization from 2007 to 2018 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her gothic horror novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards and earned the 2018 Story Monsters Approved Seal in the Tween Category.
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